A Possible Owl

possible owlFor as long as I have lived across the street from Fort Tryon Park (now going on two years), I have hoped to spot an owl there. There must be owls, but they are probably difficult to find. They probably nest out of sight, way off in the hidden trees.

But yesterday, as I started walking up the hill, I saw a bird that looked tantalizingly  owl-like from a distance. I took the picture to the left. It seems too round and large to be another sort of bird (such as a falcon); also, it was almost twilight, a possible time for an owl to be out.

The best part was looking and looking and trying to figure out the form. I thought that if I got to the other side, where I could see the bird from the front, I would know more. But that never happened; once I got there, the bird had flown away. So I have no choice but to “accept the mystery” (to quote from A Serious Man) and keep watching for more owls. Now I will watch more sharply, knowing that I might have seen an owl before and might see one again.

I was left afterward thinking about how much of our lives we spend discerning forms. Is that person in the distance who I think it is, or not? (I am rather bad at face recognition, so I sometimes end up staring at strangers.) Is the peach at the supermarket ripe enough to be eaten today? One can squeeze and smell  it–but one must also know the particular kind of peach.

Or consider language. Is the Hebrew word for “silver” or “money” pronounced “kesef” or “kasef”? You can’t tell from the spelling, unless there are vowel markings; the pronunciation will depend on the word’s syntactic location. If it occurs at the end of the verse or at the etnachta (semicolon-like division), it will be “kasef,” the pausal form; otherwise it will be “kesef.” So, to know the sounds, one must look past the word itself.

Then music: When listening to a piece with which I am familiar  (but which I do not know by heart), I find myself anticipating and questioning the structures: Is the second theme coming after this diminuendo? Does the oboe’s solo extend beyond the underlying phrase? It isn’t that I pose these questions in words—usually they’re without words—but I’m making sense of the structure all the same.

Animals do this kind of thing too. There was a loud, many-birded chirping outside just now, and Minnaloushe raised her head, apparently noticing something interesting in the sound. Other street sounds don’t call her attention at all. But then, for whatever reason, she decided to return to her nap. If instead she had heard a can being opened, she would have rushed to the kitchen.

So a great deal of the mind’s work consists of figuring out what things are, which involves distinguishing them from other and similar things. This is more than a matter of sorting into categories; it requires perceiving things right up to their edges, right up to the point where they stop being that thing and turn into something else.

That is what some poetry does; it goes up to the edges of things. That is what I hear in Marianne Moore’s “The Fish” (unquotable except in full because  of the way each stanza, with just one exception, falls into the next).

A perception, or a change in perception, affects the perceptions that follow; it changes not only what one sees, but what one looks or listens for. Yesterday’s bird has altered my walks in the park.

The Trope of Esther

Rembrandt_EstherOn Purim (this Saturday and Sunday) I will be chanting Chapters 7 and 8 of Megillat Esther at a synagogue in Long Island. These are momentous chapters; Esther reveals to King Ahasuerus that Haman intends to destroy her people; at the king’s command, Haman is hanged on the very gallows that he prepared for Mordechai; then Esther entreats the king to reverse all Haman’s letters ordering the destruction of the Jews; the king orders letters to be written in his name, sealed with his ring, and sent out all over the land from India to Ethiopia; his order is executed; Mordechai goes forth in royal apparel; and all the Jews are joyous.

Purim is often known for its costumes and noisemakers, wine, food, and music–and rightly so. But underneath that, something serious is going on: the reading and hearing of the entire Scroll of Esther, at both the evening and the morning services. Every Jew (male and female, young and old) is required to hear the reading of Esther; the catch is that you can’t hear much, because of the noisemakers and general brouhaha. Every time Haman’s name is uttered, people are supposed to drown it out. The noise extends beyond the name. But that makes it all the more exciting to discover the text and melodies. They cry and rejoice below the festivities.

The Hebrew sacred texts have six distinct trope sets (codified by the tenth century, and probably much older), all with the same basic principles and symbols but distinct melodic phrases. These are: Torah trope, Haftarah trope, High Holiday trope, Esther trope, Festival trope (for the Song of Songs, Ruth, and Ecclesiastes), and Lamentations trope. Trope–the melodic system underlying the art of cantillation–brings out the structure, meaning, and beauty of the text.

I will give a brief sense of Esther trope through Chapter 8, verses 5 and 6. Verse 5 is in regular Esther trope; because of the sentence complexity, it is especially ornate. Verse 6 makes a diversion into Lamentations trope; it has a simple melody and a plaintive feel. (The Esther text has  many melodic diversions–some into Lamentations trope and some into special melodies.)

Biblical verses typically divide into two parts; from there, they subdivide into still smaller phrases. The first division is indicated by the trope called “etnachta,” which looks like a caret and comes with a pause. Further subdivisions and connections are marked by other melodies.

Here’s the Hebrew-English text of 8:5-6 as it appears in the Open Siddur Project (except that I have bolded and colored the word in each verse that contains the etnachta: “be’einav” in verse 5 and “et-ammi” in verse 6). This has both vowel and trope marks; the actual scroll has neither (the reader must learn the trope patterns beforehand).

הַ5 וַ֠תֹּאמֶר אִם־עַל־הַמֶּ֨לֶךְ ט֜וֹב וְאִם־מָצָ֧אתִי חֵ֣ן לְפָנָ֗יו וְכָשֵׁ֤ר הַדָּבָר֙ לִפְנֵ֣י הַמֶּ֔לֶךְ וְטוֹבָ֥ה אֲנִ֖י בְּעֵינָ֑יו יִכָּתֵ֞ב לְהָשִׁ֣יב אֶת־הַסְּפָרִ֗ים מַחֲשֶׁ֜בֶת הָמָ֤ן בֶּֽן־הַמְּדָ֙תָא֙ הָאֲגָגִ֔י אֲשֶׁ֣ר כָּתַ֗ב לְאַבֵּד֙ אֶת־הַיְּהוּדִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֖ר בְּכָל־מְדִינ֥וֹת הַמֶּֽלֶךְ׃ 6 כִּ֠י אֵיכָכָ֤ה אוּכַל֙ וְֽרָאִ֔יתִי בָּרָעָ֖ה אֲשֶׁר־יִמְצָ֣א אֶת־עַמִּ֑י וְאֵֽיכָכָ֤ה אוּכַל֙ וְֽרָאִ֔יתִי בְּאָבְדַ֖ן מוֹלַדְתִּֽי׃

In the JPS translation, Esther 8:5 reads, “And [she] said, If it please the king, and if I have favour in his sight, and the thing seem right before the king, and I be pleasing in his eyes, let it be written to reverse the letters devised by Haman the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, which he wrote to destroy the Jews which are in all the king’s provinces.”

The long subordinate clause occupies the first part of the verse–and the main clause, the second. The etnachta, dividing the two parts, occurs at the phrase “in his eyes.” There are more subdivisions from there. Here is my recording of the verse; here’s verse 6. (I posted recordings of verses 5 and 6 only, to give a sense of the trope.)

Verse 6 (still Esther speaking) is simpler in structure; through its Lamentations trope and clear parallelism, it contrasts with verse 5. It translates, “For how can I endure to see the evil that shall come unto my people? or how can I endure to see the destruction of my kindred?” The verse’s symmetry holds sadness.

In Esther trope, the etnachta sounds different from the sof pasuk trope, the melody at the very end of the verse. In Lamentations trope, the two are nearly identical. You can hear this difference in verses 5 and 6. Lamentations trope feels in some ways like swinging on a swing, all alone, in the courtyard of a crumbled city; you feel the repetition and rhythm, but everything is bare.

These two verses hold complexity and simplicity; they combine art and soul into a cry. It is this combination that defines Esther for me; with all her cunning, she lives and speaks for her people and their survival. Her plea rolls the story to its conclusion.

There is much more to say about cantillation–but the discussion gets more technical (and beautiful) from here. Of course there is much more to say about Megillat Esther too. The best book I know  on trope is Joshua Jacobson’s 965-page Chanting the Hebrew Bible: The Complete Guide to the Art of Cantillation. I recommend it to anyone interested in the subject. Of course the best book to read on Esther is the Scroll itself. In that spirit, happy Purim and almost-spring!

 

Image credit: Rembrandt, Ahasuerus and Haman at the Feast of Esther (1660)

Note: I made some edits and additions to this piece after posting it.

Public Privacy

heart-on-a-platterWe have been worn thin by publicity, especially in the internet era. Private life, as it was once known and protected, has ceased to exist, except for those who protect it defiantly. On the one hand, this “openness” brings people out of isolation; they can now speak of their experiences in ways they could not before. I remember when it was considered shameful to bring up family problems or divorce; children often felt that they could not tell anyone what was happening at home. (That still might be the case—but there’s more of a sense that it’s good to speak up.) Also, people went through personal tragedy without knowing that others had been through similar things. Today it is easier in some ways to find support, and this is good.

But the spillage of personal life carries dangers. It has become the new norm to put your heart on webcam, as it were—so if you wish to be more reserved, you are on your own. Also, the boundaries are unclear and can vary widely from situation to situation. A normal disclosure in one context could easily be “too much information” in another; with no ill intention, people can intrude on each other with their words, or can appear rude and standoffish for holding back. This confusion of boundaries can hurt friendships, working relationships, and family bonds.

This “public privacy” cripples discourse as well. (Hannah Arendt, writing more than half a century ago, describes this as the submersion of the private and public spheres in the social sphere.) Newspaper op-eds, radio shows, and other media and formats are now filled with intensely personal stories, which you are not supposed to challenge. If you try to do so—and few dare—you risk being written off as heartless. It’s personal, after all.

Moreover, to share your private life is to shed your guilt—or so goes the belief. In his essay “How Publicity Makes People Real” (in Moral Imagination), David Bromwich discusses how this “broadcast intimacy”—through which people seek some kind of public expiation—prompts people to disclose things to the masses that they would not tell their own families. The success of this process, he writes, “depends on the puzzling fact that the irrevocable passage from depth to surface can be experienced as a relief.”

I was stunned by a recent New York Times piece by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, “You May Want to Marry My Husband.” The author writes from the deathbed, it seems; she says, “I need to say this (and say it right) while I have a) your attention, and b) a pulse.” She explains that she was diagnosed in 2015 with ovarian cancer and had to give up her plans and projects. She proceeds to describe her wonderful husband, Jason, and to express hope that the right reader will find him and start a new life with him once she (Rosenthal) is gone.

The problem lies not with publishing a farewell to her husband, or writing about cancer and impending death. All of this can be done with grace (and even privacy). Rather, this excruciating context makes it difficult for anyone to question her gesture of offering her husband up. That gesture, as I see it, should not be protected from criticism; any thoughtful and civil response should have a place.

I find her gesture troubling, not only in itself but in combination with a detail in the piece. She mentions that in her most recent memoir (written before her diagnosis), she invited her readers to suggest matching tattoos (that they would actually get). She thought this would be a great way for reader and author to bond. She ended up taking a suggestion from a 62-year-old librarian; the two went to get tattoos together.

I responded with the following comment:

You write: “In my most recent memoir (written entirely before my diagnosis), I invited readers to send in suggestions for matching tattoos, the idea being that author and reader would be bonded by ink.”

That, to me, goes against the bond between reader and text, a bond that can strengthen, weaken, release, or otherwise change over time. The reader does not have to be on display; he or she can think, dispute, laugh and cry in private. The author, likewise, needs no permanent token of the reader’s devotion; to write and publish something is to trust that readers will arrive.

I find privacy missing from this piece overall–not because you write about a personal experience (which many writers do, even those who tend toward privacy), but because you seem to try here, as before, to bond with a reader in the flesh.

Not all bonds have to be in the flesh; not all have to be known, seen, etched, or advertised.

That said, I recognize the pain and grief that you are facing.

At this point there are 1,124 comments. The overwhelming majority speak of being in tears over the piece, finding it the most beautiful thing they have every read, etc. There are only a few outliers—and some of them got snappy comments in response. Some people even said that only a heartless person would read the piece without crying.

My point here is not that Rosenthal did something wrong. There is more than one view of the matter. Many took her piece as an act of love and courage; there’s much here that the readers cannot see or know. Nor is the problem (as I see it) with her piece in particular. The problem is more general: Such excruciating revelations call for only one kind of response. You are supposed to join in the chorus of sympathy or be a brute.

Because pieces like this are so common, because it has become the norm to put not only oneself but one’s loved ones “out there,” public discussion has lost some of its verve, diversity, and questioning. (Of course many other factors have affected discussion as well.)

Personal stories are essential; they have beauty, they can help both the teller and the hearer, and they can transcend the particular situation. But there are stories and stories; a story should not be protected and praised because it’s personal, and people should not be afraid of questioning and criticizing a story’s content, premises, or style.

There is reason to be wary of genres and platforms that encourage unanimous mass responses. Literature at its best, no matter what its content or form, helps us speak and think on our own.

On Stopping Hate

rally-2Yesterday I attended the Stand Against Hate rally in Philadelphia to protest the desecration of Mount Carmel Cemetery and the recent wave of hate and violence against many individuals and groups. I do not often go to rallies, but this was too important to me. I took the train—brought work along and got a lot done—walked two miles in sun and breeze to Independence Mall, and joined with the hundreds who had come from near and far. I am glad I did and glad that there were so many people there. It was a great and affirming event.

As I listened to the speeches and songs (sung by wonderful choruses—including the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy Student Choir and the Mainline Unity Choir), I asked myself whether it was possible to get rid of hate, and if not, what could be done to curb it. Hate, it seems, is part of our makeup; in some ways it functions to define us.

I hate a certain kind of syrupy prose, so it would be easy for me to hate a writer of syrupy prose. If pressed, I would claim that it was the writing I hated, not the person, but it’s all too easy for one to slip into the other. It’s not bad to hate certain syrupy prose; those antipathies spur better writing. If I see syrup in my own prose, I take out a spoon and scoop it out. Begone! But derision itself is harder to scoop; it slides past the object into a larger field.

So instead of stopping hatred, which will probably be with us forever, I would try to stop the slippage. People often speak in terms of hating the deed but not the perpetrator, or hating the sin but not the sinner. There’s much more to it, though; it also involves recognizing how little we know about another. But what does this take? It seems to have to do with halting oneself, seeing one’s own limits. It also requires some laws and safeguards.

It also has to do with recognizing what we have in common: first of all dignity, but also history, family, friends, yearnings, emotions, thoughts, questions, needs, duties, and more. It is no trifle to hold the door for someone or help someone carry a baby carriage down the stairs; this not only shows courtesy but allows both the giver and receiver of assistance to see something in the other.

How, then, do we build these parallel understandings: that we know little about others, and that we have much in common?

The first way is through spontaneous acts of kindness and courtesy–helping an elderly person across the street, welcoming someone to sit next to us (in response to the question “Is this seat taken?” and hundreds of other daily possibilities.

Another is through structured acts: volunteering, participating in events, visiting other countries and parts of the U.S., and reading opinions and perspectives that differ from our own.

Another is through building and enforcing laws that protect people’s rights, electing responsible and honorable leaders, and fostering civic education.

Another is through schools: teaching subject matter in all its glory, posing challenging questions, bringing students into dialogue and discussion, and creating an atmosphere where intellect and art are respected and cherished.

Another is through literature, history, and art, which have a way of surprising the soul and accompanying us through our lives.

Another is through mathematics and science, which have a common language across cultures and help us understand the relations between the abstract and concrete.

Another is through dialogue: learning from others, discussing easy and difficult questions, telling and hearing stories.

Another is through gathering and speaking against acts of hate: affirming that they are unacceptable and something else is possible.

Maybe all of this involves an internal gesture. It’s hard to describe, but it has to do, I think, with keeping oneself in check, recognizing that one is not the master of the universe or the arbiter of human nature. This sounds like an intellectual understanding, but it’s partly visceral too. It’s the dropping of hands, the halting of steps, the catching of impulse in an instant.

In his challenging and exhilarating book Human Dignity, George Kateb takes up the difficulty of dignity and proceeds to defend it. Human dignity, according to Kateb, has two aspects. It is founded, first, on “humanity’s partial discontinuity with nature”—that is, the special gifts and responsibilities of humans—and second, on the equal status of all humans. These two principles may be in conflict with each other—human dignity may have inherent contradictions—but it is better, he argues, to deal with the conflicts than to break dignity into pieces or dismiss it altogether.

Those ideas guide me when I stand against hate. It is not that I imagine that we will ever eradicate hatred from ourselves or others. Rather, I affirm something greater and more difficult: my responsibility to help build the world, and my profound equality with everyone. Along with that, I remember that what I see and know is just a speck of what exists.

 

Photo credit: Thanks to the kind person who took this picture.

Note: I made a few additions and edits to this piece after posting it.

Twitter, Trump, and Trivialization

electric-companyFrom what I have seen and gathered, Twitter can be a quick and efficient way to spread information. But it also invites one-off, irresponsible, incomplete comments that gain momentum as they go.

Mitchell D. Silber, former director of intelligence analysis for the New York Police Department (and now Executive Managing Director for Intelligence and Analytic Solutions at K2 Intelligence), explained the relation between social media (particularly of the Twitter variety) and acts of hatred and violence: “You started out with the hostile tweets. You moved to the bomb threats against JCCs and other institutions, and now you have a physical manifestation at the cemeteries with the gravestones knocked over.” (This quote is from yesterday’s New York Times article “Threats and Vandalism Leave American Jews on Edge in Trump Era” by Alan Blinder, Serge F. Kovaleski, and Adam Goldman.)

I do not know that Twitter is influencing any of the recent killings, bomb threats, cemetery desecrations, or other acts. But a medium that encourages fragmented, sensationalist, extreme expression cannot be helping the situation. Twitter has actually replaced other kinds of online conversation; people go there first for their updates and reactions.

Now we have a president who thrives on Twitter—who may even owe his electoral victory to his relationship with the tweet. In October 2015, Michael Barbaro explained (in another New York Times article) how Trump used the medium to promote himself and cut others down:

On Twitter, Mr. Trump has assembled an online SWAT team of devoted (some say rabid) supporters who spring into action with stunning speed. In a pattern that has played out over and over, he makes a provocative remark, like one about Mrs. Fiorina’s face — “Would anybody vote for that?’’ — and hundreds of thousands of strangers defend him, spread his message and engage in emotional debates with his critics, all the while ensuring he remains the subject of a constant conversation.

Yes, this is the style of our chief executive. The danger lies not only in the meanness of his remarks—which is appalling—but in the lack of reason. He maintains these qualities of speech both online and offline. About the vandalism of the Jewish cemeteries, he reportedly told the state attorneys general that the threats and destruction might be a politically coordinated effort to “make people look bad.”

That is not even a statement. It is a half-hint. Is he saying that someone did this to make him look bad? Or does he mean something else? Where are these words coming from? Who are the “people” to whom he refers? Presidents throughout history have exploited the vagueness of language, but this goes beyond vagueness; while making little sense, it also trivializes what has happened and sheds responsibility.

Such trivialization aids the violence even if it doesn’t cause it. If you reduce an act of violence to a vague handful of words, you encourage others to respond in kind. Those upset by these events but trying to make sense of them may end up spending hours clicking tweets and links, becoming, as Jesse Singal puts it, “click-zombies,” instead of putting their efforts into clearer speech).

If headstones are being toppled, people are being killed for their race and origin, community centers are receiving bomb threats, cars and buildings are being spray-painted with Nazi graffiti, and our most popular social media sites are set up for wrist-jerk responses, then not only our language but our places of speech are crying for repair.

Image credit: From an the PBS program The Electric Company (still image taken from video).

Note: I made a few edits to this piece after posting it.